San Francisco Chinatown is the oldest and one of the most historically significant Chinatowns remaining in the United States. So much can be said about the few blocks in the heart of San Francisco: It’s a place new immigrants can call home, a tourist destination, a story of resilience. After the 1906 earthquake and fire, which destroyed most of the neighborhood, city officials wanted to rebuild Chinatown further south near Bayview-Hunters Point. Racism was at its peak, during a time when most Chinese could not legally immigrate to the U.S. nor become citizens under the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which lasted until 1942 and, de facto, until 1965.
Fast forward to 2020, when the coronavirus outbreak has led to anti-Asian sentiment, hate crimes, harassment, and more. Historically, Chinese restaurants in San Francisco have had a harder go at surviving during shutdowns compared to other restaurants. Yet Chinatown has endured, again and again, as do other San Francisco neighborhoods with newer Chinese restaurant strips — businesses owned by immigrants who have arrived from Toisan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and all of the regions that make up China.
We asked chefs, luminaries, and leaders from San Francisco to name their favorite Chinese restaurant in San Francisco. Food has always been a gateway into other cultures; and yet, while Chinese restaurants are more common in this country than McDonald’s, accepting another person’s cuisine doesn’t automatically mean accepting, and respecting, the people behind the food. As Shakirah Simley, a food justice activist and director of the city’s office of racial equity, puts it, “It’s OK to love people’s food and culture, but you also have to love the people. Love and respect the cuisines, and take care of the people behind the food.”
Kam Lok Restaurant
“Hung tao yee fu won ton [a Chinese American dish unique to the San Francisco Bay Area — crunchy, fried wontons gently immersed in savory soup made of egg whites, cilantro, and meat such as Chinese char siu barbecue pork] is one of my favorite dishes [there]. It’s not a common dish found in many restaurants, so it’s a treat to find it at Kam Lok.
“The soup is rich and flavorful; there’s lots of veggies, and the fried wontons are perfect. It’s not known to be a tourist destination, so those who go are mostly locals seeking good Cantonese-style food. Having worked in Chinatown for over 15 years, I’ve had a lot of memories there. The most endearing memories are those shared with colleagues. The camaraderie built over a meal definitely strengthened the trust and relationships. Some call it a ‘hole-in-the-wall’ because it’s a basement location with no windows on the street level. If you’re not looking for it, you’ll most likely miss it.” // 834 Washington St., kamlokrestaurant.com.
Pam Wong, Interim Executive Director
Chinese Historical Society of America
“Because of the diaspora of Chinese families immigrating to San Francisco over the course of the past 150 years, we’re really privileged to have the regional diversity and generational differences when it comes to Chinese food. There would be no San Francisco without Chinatown. Within the city, we have multiple neighborhoods with different vibes. When I go out to get Chinese food, I usually go to the Inner Richmond, a second- and third-generation neighborhood for Chinese families.
“Chili House SF serves Sichuan cuisine and also dim sum. I’ve gone there for years; it’s been the center for a lot of family and friend celebrations. When you go, you can call 24 hours ahead and order Peking duck. I also get the twice-cooked pork, the numbing tan tan noodles, and the eggplant in spicy garlic sauce. One thing I really love is their elaborate tea service. A visiting tea master uses a long-spout kettle for a beautiful demonstrations, which is supposed to preserve the tea flavor and help aid in digestion.
“They also have a very generous corkage fee. The first time I went to Chili House was with a number of my friends who work in the wine industry; it was really fun, and I appreciated their intentionality on dismantling stereotypes that you can’t pair wine with Chinese food or spicy cuisines. On New Year’s Day, my partner, who is of Chinese heritage, and I usually visit to share long noodles for a bit of good luck (along with the requisite black-eyed peas, greens, and cornbread at home!).” // 726 Clement St., chilihousesf.com.
Food justice activist
“It’s a really charming space, where everything feels like a Chinese market. Of course, I also love the food there. The noodles at China Live are custom-made from the restaurant and absolutely delicious. [But] I love the skillet buns the best. It’s a dish unique to Shanghai, my hometown. I have cravings for them sometimes—an ancient craving from childhood. I remember craving for and getting the chicken skillet buns all the time when I was pregnant with my daughters in George [Chen’s] other restaurant, called Betelnut.
“This is the only Chinese restaurant in Chinatown that has this kind of design — the design is like Chinatown 3.0. The same owner [George Chen] also opened Eight Tables, upstairs from China Live. And George Chen, and his wife Cindy, are supporters of the arts and many other charitable causes.” // 644 Broadway, chinalivesf.com.
Actress and food blogger
“The fried chicken wings with salt and hot pepper are seriously the best fried chicken wings in the Bay Area. I’m pretty sure if there were a top chicken-wing list in the world, Capital would make it. They are perfectly salted and seasoned, with the right amount of crisp and jalapeño peppers. People often doubt my claim until they go and try the wings for themselves. Asians are serious about their fried chicken.
“I’ve been eating at this restaurant for close to two decades. As a youth organizer, I would go to Capital with one of my co-workers from Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC). We were in our 20s, and we’d order their special family menu. It included soup, mapo tofu, fried chicken wings, beef and onions, and more, for a ridiculously low price. It was a meal for four, but the two of use would inhale the meal after a long week of organizing in Chinatown.” // 839 Clay St., 415-397-6269.
Civil rights attorney and former SF supervisor
“You can find little gems in small neighborhoods that just blow your mind. The food just speaks. You sit down, you smell it, you see families in there. The cool thing specifically about this restaurant is that there’s a room with a glass window; you can see all the ladies making the dumplings and pulling the noodles. It’s an experience, but a low-frills experience that I love. On that part of Irving, it’s a stretch where you literally don’t have to leave the neighborhood to do anything. Everything from hair salons, boba places, bars, and a ton of restaurants. That one is one of our favorites, for sure.
“My favorite thing there is a beef noodle soup with fermented cabbage with freshly hand-pulled noodles. It’s so good. It’s a small operation, but super delicious. You can get dumplings as a soup, or on a plate. It’s not expensive at all. My wife loves Sichuan food. We get the shredded pig ear in chili oil, hot and spicy beef tendon, and as far as the dumplings, we get them all. Cabbage and pork is one of our favorites. It’s a pretty tight menu, but everything is just great. They opened about two years ago, and we’ve been going since. Comfort food and soul food translate across cultures and cuisines.” //2110 Irving St., 415-702-6506.
R & G Lounge
“When it’s crab season, we usually order live crab with salt and pepper because they are known for it. The batter is not too heavy and the crab is never overdone. My favorite parts are the crispy bits with scallions and the crab innards! We also order the steamed clams with eggs: I love a good chawanmushi, and this is similar to the nth degree. The steamed egg is custardy, never rubbery, and you can taste the salinity from the clams. I enjoy mixing this in my rice with the crispy bits from the salt-and-pepper crab for some texture. For the baked black cod — OMG, our family loves this dish—we could never attempt to make this at home because there are so many techniques involved. The glaze is not heavy or overpowering, the filet is flaky and never dry. It’s freaking delicious. Their crispy chicken is excellent — succulent and savory. Never too salty or dry. I like dipping it in the salt-and-white pepper. The shrimp chips that come with it are delicious as well. Our family does not go out for Chinese food very often unless it’s for dim sum. R&G has a great menu and we’ve always had excellent meals there, which is amazing, since we are very picky eaters.” // 631 Kearny St., rnglounge.com.
Disability activist and editor of Disability Visibility (Vintage Books, 2020)
King of Noodles
“A neighbor recommended this little restaurant to my wife, and the hand-pulled noodles blew me away. It quickly became a regular spot to get dinner with my wife and son. All the food is delicious, but we do have a regular list of things we order. It’s hard to pick one; we get so many as a family. Farmers cucumbers, scallion pancakes, the hand-pulled noodle soups, xiao long bao, pork and chive dumplings, dry-fried green beans, daikon cakes. Try the hot sauce, too! We have been going there so long that they know us and the usual things we order. They recommend new things for us to try. It’s a tiny spot, but a fun place to eat. It’s just one of many Chinese restaurants that I love to eat at. The culinary techniques and traditions run so deep that I am always learning how to use a cut of meat or vegetable in a new way. Chinese foods are so regional and based on such a deep-rooted history; I’m always excited to learn a new technique or flavor profile.” // 1639 Irving St., 415-566-8318.
Chef and co-owner, Cockscomb
“My favorite dishes there are roasted pork, roast duck, and soy sauce chicken. Their whole roast pork is a centerpiece for a banquet, and always impresses diners. The crispy crackly pork skin is a masterpiece. What makes this restaurant unique is that the brothers there are taking the Chinese barbecue techniques that were passed down to them from their father. They have a really massive oven in the back to do their roasting that can fit a hanging full sized pig.
“I had the pleasure of meeting them while producing our cookbook. They showed us around and I got to converse with them about their operation of butchering, roasting, and carving. They have a true passion for their craft, and it is evident when you taste their products.” // 1261 Stockton St., 415-397-5521.
Owner, Mister Jiu’s
Momo Chang is a freelance writer focused on stories about food, health and immigrant communities, for such publications as Wired, The San Francisco Chronicle, and the East Bay Express; and the alumni coordinator for Oakland Voices, a community journalism training program. Follow her on Twitter. Follow Resy, too.